CT Scan Exposure in Childhood or Youth and Cancer Risk

prof_john_d_mathewsJohn D. Mathews, MBBS, MD, PhD, DSc Hon, DMedSc Hon,
Professor of epidemiology at the School of Population and Global Health,
University of Melbourne,
Carlton, Victoria, Australia

Cancer risk in 680 000 people exposed to computed tomography scans in childhood or adolescence: data linkage study of 11 million Australians

MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings of the study?

Prof Mathews: We found that for persons having at least one CT scan before the age of 20 years, and followed for an average period of 10 years, the average risk of cancer was increased by 24% compared with unexposed persons matched for age, sex and year of birth. The cancer risk increased by 16% for each CT scan that preceded the cancer by more than one year. The proportional increase in risk was greater for persons exposed at younger ages.

Were any of the findings unexpected?

Prof Mathews: Hitherto, there has been uncertainty about whether the low doses of ionizing radiation from CT scans would cause a detectable increase in cancer risk. Previous studies, such as the follow-up of atomic bomb survivors in Japan, have reported cancer increases at higher average doses. A 2012 study from UK followed 180,000 CT-exposed young persons and found that the risk of brain cancers and leukaemia increased with radiation dose; no results for other cancers were reported. Our study, the largest ever population-based cohort study of ionizing radiation, shows, for the first time, that there is indeed a measurable increase in risk of most cancers following low-dose radiation.

MedicalResearch.com: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Prof Mathews: The absolute increase in cancer risk is small (approximately one extra cancer for every 1800 CT scans), so in almost all cases, the benefit of having a CT scan will outweigh the risk of getting a subsequent cancer. Nevertheless, clinicians should ensure that every CT scan is fully justified on clinical grounds, most particularly in young patients. Radiologists and radiographers should ensure that every CT scan is optimized to give a good diagnostic image at the lowest possible radiation dose.

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Prof Mathews: Our future research will refine the estimates of radiation dose, and increase the follow-up period by another 5 years.


Cancer risk in 680 000 people exposed to computed tomography scans in childhood or adolescence: data linkage study of 11 million Australians.

Mathews JD, Forsythe AV, Brady Z, Butler MW, Goergen SK, Byrnes GB, Giles GG, Wallace AB, Anderson PR, Guiver TA, McGale P, Cain TM, Dowty JG, Bickerstaffe AC, Darby SC.

School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne, Carlton, Vic 3053, Australia.

BMJ. 2013 May 21;346:f2360. doi: 10.1136/bmj.f2360.

Press Release:

Small cancer risk following CT scans in childhood and adolescence confirmed

Tuesday, May 21, 2013 – 10:33

Young people who undergo CT scans are 24% more likely to develop cancer compared with those who do not, a study published today on bmj.com suggests.

However the absolute excess for all cancers combined was low, at 9.38 for every 100,000 person years of follow-up.

The researchers say that in a group of 10,000 young people, they would expect 39 cancers to occur during the next 10 years, but if they all had one CT scan, up to six extra cancers would occur.

CT (computed tomography) scans have great medical benefits, but their increasing use since the 1980s has raised some concerns about possible cancer risks, particularly following exposures in childhood. Most previous studies have estimated risks indirectly, and some radiation experts have questioned the validity of these estimates.

There is currently much uncertainty and as such, researchers from Australia and Europe carried out a study comparing cancer rates in patients exposed to CT scans at ages 0-19 years compared with unexposed persons of a similar age. All participants were born between 1985 and 2005 with total follow-up ending at the end of 2007. This is the largest ever population-based study of medical radiation exposure.

Data were taken from Australian Medicare records and from national cancer records. The main outcome of the research was to identify cancer rates in individuals exposed to a CT scan more than one year before any cancer diagnosis. Mean length of follow-up was 9.5 years for the exposed group and 17.3 for the unexposed group.

The cohort included 10.9 million people, 680,211 of whom were CT-exposed at least 12 months before any cancer diagnosis. 18% of these had more than one scan.

By the end of 2007, 3150 of the exposed group and 57,524 of the unexposed group had been diagnosed with cancer. The incidence rate was 24% greater in the exposed group after adjusting for age, sex and year of birth. Risk increased by 16% for each additional CT scan.

For brain cancer, although the incidence in the exposed group declined with time since first CT-exposure, brain cancer incidence was still significantly increased more than 15 years after first exposure. For other solid cancers (tumours as opposed to cancers of the blood or bone marrow) the absolute excess cancer incidence increased significantly with time since first exposure.

For all cancers combined, although the proportional increase declined with years since first CT scan, it was still increased at 15+ years after first exposure.

For brain cancer, the highest risk was seen in children exposed before the age of five years and this risk decreased with increasing age at first exposure. However, despite this decrease, risk for all cancers combined remained significantly increased in the oldest age at exposure group (15-19 years).

For solid cancers other than brain cancer, the proportional increase in risk was somewhat greater in females: 23% compared with 14% in males.

The researchers say that almost 60% of CT scans were of the brain and recognise that “in some cases the brain cancer may have led to the scan rather than vice versa”. They add that they “cannot assume that all the excess cancers […] were caused by CT scans” and they “cannot rule out the possibility of some reverse causation, particularly for some cases of brain cancer”.

Nevertheless, they conclude that the “increased incidence of many different types of cancer […] is mostly due to irradiation”. They point out that because the cancer excess was still continuing at the end of follow-up, the “eventual lifetime risk from CT scans cannot yet be determined”. They recommend that practitioners will need to weigh the benefits against the potential risks to justify each CT scan decision.

In an accompanying editorial, Dr Sodickson from Harvard Medical School says it is important to recognise that the incidence of cancer in children is extremely small and so “a 24% increase makes this risk just slightly less small”. He says that there are many methods to manage radiation dose and with further validation of risk models, “more accurate risk assessment “can be performed to “better inform imaging decisions”.

Research: Professor John Mathews, School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne, Australia

[email protected]

Editorial: Aaron Sodickson, Section Chief of Emergency Radiology and Medical Director of Computed Tomography, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, USA via Lori Schroth (Press Office)
[email protected]


Last Updated on March 19, 2014 by Marie Benz MD FAAD